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Food, Fairness and Foot Access
Eric De Place, 18 Nov 08

food%20and%20foot%20access.htm More like this please: In Saturday's Oregonian, Paige Parker has a fabulous story on the profound equity implications of pedestrian-unfriendly communities.

More on the article in a second but first, a rant. Walkability is not just an amenity. Is it not a lifestyle accessory for the well-heeled. It is, for many people, an issue of basic social and economic justice. Zoning that segregates housing from retail -- and that reduces walkability and transit access -- has serious consequences for equity. So it's wonderful to see a newspaper article treat it that way.

Without the resources to own and operate a car, low-income families can face huge obstacles to meeting basic needs.

Low-income and minority families, prone to obesity and dietary-related diseases, are also more likely to live in communities where nutritious food is hard to come by, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports. These are otherwise known as "food deserts." Nationally, the typical low-income neighborhood has 30 percent fewer supermarkets than higher-income neighborhoods.

To illustrate the difficulty, Parker profiles a northeast Portland family who must spend several hours on transit, just to access an affordable grocery store. It's easy to think of this as little more than a big headache, but that's wrong-headed. It's a real economic hardship for those who can least afford it.

...the closest markets are convenience stores. They're sugar shacks of a kind, given their selection of cigarettes, beer and processed foods. At one, the produce section amounts to a few bruised tomatoes, limes and jalapenos. The other charges $4.89 for a gallon of milk, about $2 more than a regular supermarket.

And it's a relatively serious public health hazard too. Confined to these type of markets, it's not just what you eat -- processed, low-nutrition foods -- but what you don't eat. In fact:

In a 2002 study of 10,000 people, University of North Carolina researchers found African Americans ate an average of 32 percent more fruits and vegetables for each supermarket in their census tract.

The article goes on to take a close look at the economics behind grocery store locations -- pretty fascinating stuff in my book. The Oregonian story is based in part on the Regional Equity Atlas Project from the Livable Communities Coalition. It's very cool. And while I'm giving out props I should mention Jennifer Langston's similarly terrific article in the Seattle P-I about six months ago.

In some later post, I'd like to hash out some of the policy proposals that often get floated in discussions like this. I'm kinda skeptical:

A coalition of health advocates, farmers and others have launched a farmers market. Now neighbors are itching for a natural food store... City officials would like to expand community gardens to get low-income residents growing their own fruits and vegetables.

I mean, nothing against these things. I love my farmers market and I love my backyard garden. But these can be extraordinarily expensive, not to mention time-intensive. Frankly, they're luxuries that are beyond the reach of many low-income families. And I don't think a natural food store -- where prices are almost certain to be higher  -- is the answer. I'm much more interested in how we can beef up transit service or use zoning to incentivize better grocery access.

But I'm curious to know what readers think. What's the best  solution here? 

This piece originally appeared on The Sightline Institute's blog, The Daily Score.

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move to Canada...

discount grocery stores (i.e. No Frills) are booming right now. They are usually easily accessible by public transportation in large cities.

These discount grocery stores find their way into smaller cities and towns across the country (though mostly in Ontario) and provide affordable groceries.

Even people working minimum wage jobs can afford the rates most of these groceries go for.

The "no frills" concept is definitely something the grocery stores in the U.S. should widely incorporate.

Sure it's fun to shop at higher-end grocery stores where touch-screen TVs place orders for you, or produce is displayed on costly overhead - but when it comes to buying the basics, the "KISS" formula comes into my head. - Keep It Simple Stupid!

Wikipedia has a pretty good explanation about the "no frills" concept for those who would like to read up about it.

Posted by: guest on 19 Nov 08

Is zoning the only issue, or are market forces making it harder for grocery stores to keep stores in low income neighborhoods? Even if a neighborhood is perfectly walkable, grocery store owners will only tolerate so much shrinkage (ie. theft) before pulling out of a problem location. I like the local co-op solution as it provides multiple community benefits (access to good food/nutrition, employment, local ownership/management/buy-in, brownfield re-use). But it also requires local leadership that's ready to take that project on, so it may not be appropriate for all communities.

Posted by: David on 19 Nov 08

OK, Canada has never looked so appealing; thanks for the "No Frills" pointer.

Unfortunately, I feel like there is no alternative for strong "local leadership". I fear overreaching public policies that try to force this issue as much as I fear sprawl because they're ineffective at best and at worst they actually drive people away from communities. I want to overcome the problems demonstrated in "The Best-Laid Plans".

Even the Regional Equity Atlas Project proposes "public policy change" first "and other solutions" later. I don't understand the concept that local (or worse, regional and national) politicians can legislate good communities into existence. It takes effort by the people who live there; we just have to find a way to share the benefits of the farmers' markets and backyard gardens more effectively.

I wonder what it costs to start a "No Frills" store. Right now we're in the right economy to start one!

Posted by: Trent on 19 Nov 08

How did North America get this so wrong? Building cities for cars instead of people, of course, but it's a bit a bummer. I've lived in Europe a few times, and I've never experienced that "must drive to get anywhere" phenomenon that's all too common in North America.

Posted by: Darren on 19 Nov 08

Sadly enough I still think one of the overlooked causes of our "drive everywhere" society is the overwhelming physical size of our country. Our states are the size of many countries, we cover an entire continenet from east to west. That doesn't excuse our drive society but I feel it is in our subconcious and has been exploited by some.
Then it works into our way of life, I must park right at the front door, I can't walk an extra 10 parking spaces, it is too wet, sunny, hot, cold, etc. We have become lazy, also. I watch people cruise for a space, and waste time, instead of parking at the back where there are no cars just to "save time."
About no frills food stores, we have a grocery run as the food version of Big Lots, UGO stores, and I see more people looking like me, middle class or higher looking for bargins not glitz. Sadly, I also see many getting bargins on junk food not the healthy things even this store offers. Still, this store shows even people who aren't scraping by can give up high end for the basics.

Posted by: Harriet on 27 Nov 08

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